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The Art of Creating Online Communities


Guest Post: Kate Emanuel, The Ad Council

Two soldiers sharing their life struggles post-combat. Individuals with mental health issues discussing the ugly side of stigma. A group of women confiding about the stress of caring for their aging parents.

These activities — taking place online — are just a few examples of why virtual communities can be so powerful and effective. Whether listservs, chat rooms, message boards or social media — people are seeking ways to connect in the digital world, just as they do in the offline world.emanuel (1)

Whether a foundation or nonprofit,  the decision to to leverage online communities as part of an overall communications strategy requires a substantial investment in time and resources — yet the rewards can be great.

Last month, the Ad Council moderated a panel at the CDC’s National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media on creating online communities. Panelists included communication experts from AARP, National Alliance for Mental Illness, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and HelpsGood (the online voice of Smokey Bear).

What were the major takeaways? Here a few tidbits of what they’ve done right and perhaps more importantly, some lessons learned.

1.  Decide first if you need to build an online community

Not every campaign needs discussion forums on its own website. If you are running a school supplies drive for low-income youth, you don’t necessarily need message boards or chat rooms. But if your issue calls for peer support, the promotion of resources, or a way to reduce isolation and stigma, creating a community can be key.

At AARP, they knew that caregivers were isolated yet also busy and stressed. By creating an online forum where caregivers could go online 24/7, connect with other caregivers, get expert advice and find local resources, they were able to attract over 10 million visitors. IAVA was trying to tackle PTSD and offer support to returning soldiers with colleagues who had been there. They knew that over 40% of the returning veterans lived in rural areas, so it made sense to create an online forum to reduce isolation.

2.  Choose the right platform

It’s not as simple as creating a message board — you need to understand your audience and what platform it will be most comfortable using. IAVA knew they’d have to create a private community — soldier-to soldier. That’s why they require all members to upload proof of service — it ensures authenticity and a private space for the users. NAMI leveraged Tumblr as a platform for people struggling with mental illness to share their stories. Why? It’s an easy way for users to submit their stories and their visitors would also get the benefit of being part of the Tumblr community.

3.  Consider the investment before you dive in

Creating and managing communities takes time — whether you’re curating content, recruiting experts, creating discussion groups or moderating content. IAVA invested in a full-time community manager to moderate community feedback and intervene with users who may be suicidal. NAMI’s community is self-moderating, but the organization laid out strong rules of engagement from the start. AARP spent time developing relationships with experts and offering many different ways for caregivers to interact with them — including chats, blog posts, webinars and online Q&As. HelpsGood uses social listening tools, consistently produces text and images and curates content to maintain Smokey Bear’s social presence. No matter what you end up creating, allocate the resources you’ll need to promote, moderate and build your community.

4.  Once you build it, you need to promote it

To drive traffic to their Tumblr site, NAMI created a series of “You Are Not Alone” badges for users to share via social media using famous figures who struggled with mental illness to promote their campaign. AARP partnered with Oprah.com to speak directly to her audience (the demographic of your typical caregiver — women in their 40s and 50s) and also reached out to baby boomer bloggers and online influencers. AARP coupled this with offline promotions such as brochures in doctor offices and workplaces. Smokey’s promotions involved a creative use of current events to capitalize on popular memes such as Texts from Hillary and Betty White.

5.  Make your online community work for you

Building a community can have huge payoffs for your grantees or foundation. It can help organizations generate authentic, user-generated content or collect important feedback directly from constituents. By using this information respectfully and with consent, you can amplify your issue or campaign. For example, NAMI used its 120 stories to garner media attention

To get a sense of these online communities, visit AARP/caregiving.org, Community of Vets, YouAreNotAlone and Smokey Bear’s Twitter page. We’d love to hear what other foundations and nonprofits are doing to build online communities — let’s share and learn from each other!


Kate Emanuel is senior vice president of Nonprofit and Government Relations for the Ad Council.

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